Paris Barclay

A Conversation with Episodic Television Directors - How Inspiration Fuels the Art of Directing

June 2, 2020 A DGA Special Projects Committee Event

The craft of directing has a highly unusual alchemy and the percentage of inspiration versus perspiration can shift with every project. On June 2, the DGA Special Projects Committee presented the webinar, A Conversation with Episodic Television Directors - How Inspiration Fuels the Art of Directing. The event featured Directors Michelle MacLaren (The Deuce, The Morning Show), David Nutter (Game of Thrones, Lost in Space), Ken Whittingham (Atypical, Grace and Frankie) and Jessica Yu (Fosse/Verdon, Hollywood) in a lively discussion moderated by DGA Past President Paris Barclay (Station 19, Pitch).

“Today we want to take a look at the art and the craft of directing for episodic television from a different angle,” said Barclay. “I’ve asked our panelists to look deeper in preparation for this panel, and to discuss as openly as they are willing to share, what inspires them – from the start, through each work they create, to how they see themselves (and us) at the future. I’m hoping they’ll share a lot of their hearts as well as their heads here today.”

During the conversation, the award-nominated and award-winning directors delved into who and what inspires them to continue topping themselves artistically.

On the subject of finding ways to keep the faith when launching a career in episodic television, Yu said, “Coming from documentaries and indie films, you always feel like your last film is your last  film. There was a long time where I was not sure I was still moving forward. But I do think that helped me to be more agile in the episodic world. The thing that kept me going – and I’ve tried to keep this throughout my career – is that is I always have a project running parallel that is something that’s my own, a passion project. It keeps that momentum going even when the other side of you is wondering, ‘how am I going to do this as a career?’ I remember being on a panel at a film festival and someone asked, ‘would you ever sell out and do television?’ and I said, ‘I would love to sell out because nobody wants to buy me.’ Thank goodness there were those opportunities because right now episodic television is one of the most creative places you can be.”

Recalling one of his most joyous moments as a director, Whittingham spoke of one his first experiences helming a network show, Scrubs. “We had this one scene where I had this vision. We had to do it from a vantage point where we could see the whole city, so I decided to take a crane and put it on the top of a hotel where we could see all of Los Angeles and do a ‘oner.’ I want to do it where the character is coming from the bar, going to the table, then we did a 360 around the table and they all get up to go dance. Then we pull out and see the whole city. Everybody was thinking ‘Oh my god, this is a very ambitious shot that he wants to do.’ But I had the confidence that we could do it, so we did it. It was very expensive and only a two-minute scene, but it worked. We did four takes, but we really got it in the second take. After we achieved it – it was the last shot of the night – the entire cast came up to me and said, ‘Welcome to Scrubs.’”

Evoking instances where she took information from her personal life to inform her directing, MacLaren recalled a time when she was held at gunpoint in Uganda. “And there are many times on film sets when I think, if I got through that, I can get through this.” She also recalled an influential flight she took when she was younger. “I never talk to the people beside me but for some reason I turned to the gentleman beside me and started chatting and it was John Badham. I thought, I’m going to do the obnoxious thing and say, ‘I would like to be a director someday. Do you have any advice for me?’ John was so gracious and generous and for two and a half hours he talked to me about directing. And the most profound thing he said to me was really simple and something I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘Imagine the camera is in a hallway of an apartment building. Your actor is coming out their apartment door and walking down the hall. They do it once and you want it to go faster. Never say go faster. Say, okay, can you do it again? You forgot your keys and you’re late for the most important meeting of your life.’ That was one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever been given, and it came from a very personal moment on an airplane. I’m really grateful to John for that.”

Asked to recall an occasion where they were particularly proud of an achievement in their career, Nutter spoke about his iconic Game of Thrones episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” also known as “The Red Wedding.”

“Directors in television don’t often get reviews because you’re directing television,” said Nutter. “But we worked very hard on the episode and thought it had turned out well, but what came after that I didn’t expect. What came after that was YouTube exploded and people who had read the books were shooting their friends watching the episode. It was amazing to see people’s reactions to what I had done. That was something that mattered to me quite a bit because I realized I could get the audience to care about something. And if they do that, they’ll jump into the show all the way. With Game of Thrones, we’d spent three long years building that background and that relationship with the audience, and I think we hit a home run and that was a real joyful moment.”

During the conversation, the panelists also covered subjects including: who did they admire when they started out; what other media projects inspired their work; what keeps them going during the current hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; how they expect their work and their process might change in the future; and if tomorrow's television landscape might shift the inspiration vs. perspiration paradigm? In addition to Barclay’s topics, the panelists also took questions from the online audience.

You can listen to the panel by clicking the podcast episode embedded below. You can find more DGA podcast episodes here.

See video highlights from this event in the gallery below.

Paris BarclayParis Barclay (moderator)
A preeminent force in television entertainment, Barclay has directed more than 150 episodes of television and was active as a Director/Producer for series including: Station 19, Pitch, The Bastard Executioner, Sons of Anarchy, Cold Case, City of Angels and NYPD Blue. He also has directed episodes of House, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Good Wife, CSI, Lost, The Shield, The West Wing and ER; as well as three films: Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood; and the movies for television The Cherokee Kid and The Big Time. He earned two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Direction of a Drama Series for NYPD Blue, received six additional Emmy nominations for both producing and directing, garnered ten DGA Award nominations and became the first Director in the history of the Guild to receive a comedy and a drama nomination in the same year, two years in a row (In Treatment and Weeds in 2008; In Treatment and Glee in 2009). He won the 1998 DGA Dramatic Series Award for his NYPD Blue episode “Heart and Souls.” A DGA member since 1992, Barclay was the first African-American and openly gay President in the Guild’s history. In addition to his two terms as President of the Guild, his service includes numerous terms on the National Board and Western Directors Council and chairmanship and participation in several committees. He was honored with the Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award in 2007, which is given for providing extraordinary service to the DGA.

Michelle MacLarenMichelle MacLaren
MacLaren made her directorial debut with an episode of The X-Files while she was also serving as Co-Executive Producer of the series. Her directing credits include the pilot for The Deuce; and episodes of The Morning Show, Modern Family, WestworldBetter Call SaulThe Leftovers, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, NCIS, Hell on Wheels, Camelot, The Event, Lie to Me, Memphis Beat, Kyle XY, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, John Doe and Without a Trace. She is currently finishing post on a new series, Coyote. MacLaren has earned two Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series for her Breaking Bad episodes “One Minute” and “Gliding Over All.” A DGA member since 1992, MacLaren serves on the Western Directors Council, an alternate to the DGA National Board, and a member of the Special Projects Committee.

David NutterDavid Nutter
Nutter has more than 50 directing credits including the feature films Disturbing Behavior and Cease Fire; the movies for television The Advocates and The Doctor; the pilots for numerous series including Containment, The Flash, Arrow, The Mentalist, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Supernatural, Without a Trace, Smallville, Roswell, Millennium and Space: Above and Beyond; and episodes of Lost in Space, Shameless, Nip/Tuck, ER, The West Wing, Band of Brothers and The X-Files. He was nominated for DGA Awards for his “Join the Club” episode of The Sopranos; his "The Resurrection" and "Lose Yourself" episodes of Entourage; his "Basilone" segment of the mini-series The Pacific; and his “The Last of the Starks” and “The Rains of Castamere” episodes of Game of Thrones. He won the 2015 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series for his “Mother's Mercy” episode of Game of Thrones. Nutter has been a DGA member since 1987.

Ken WhittinghamKen Whittingham
Whittingham is a television Director and Producer with over 25 years of experience. His directing credits include episodes of Survivor’s Remorse, Life in Pieces, Sherman’s Showcase, Black-ish, Atypical, Grace and Frankie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock, Dr. Ken, The Mindy Project, 2 Broke Girls, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parenthood, The Middle, Entourage, Community, Scrubs, My Name Is Earl, Everybody Hates Chris, Rules of Engagement, Gilmore Girls, The King of Queens, The Bernie Mac Show and Suburgatory, where he worked as both the show’s Producer and Director. Whittingham won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for his “How a Bill Becomes a Law” episode of Parks and Recreation; hisThe Funcooker” episode of 30 Rock; and his”Phyllis’s Wedding” and “Michael’s Birthday” episodes of The Office. A DGA member since 1987, Whittingham has also served on four negotiations committees.

Jessica YuJessica Yu
Currently in post-production on an episode of the series Ratched, Yu’s credits include the feature Ping Pong Playa; the documentary features Last Call at the Oasis, Protagonist, In the Realms of the Unreal and The Living Museum; the pilot for Bluff City Law; and episodes of Stumptown, This Is Us, 13 Reasons Why, Billions, The Rookie, Sorry for Your Loss, The Affair, I'm Dying Up Here, Ten Days in the Valley, American Crime, Pure Genius, Lady Dynamite, Castle, Parenthood, Scandal, Grey's Anatomy, The West Wing, The Lyon's Den, The Guardian and ER. Yu was nominated for the 2019 DGA Award for her “Glory” episode of the mini-series Fosse/Verdon. She also won an Academy Award in 1997 for Best Documentary Short Subject for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. Yu has been a DGA member since 1999.

About The Special Projects Committee

Special Projects is the educational and cultural arm of the Directors Guild of America, providing its members opportunities for creative exchange to advance their craft and celebrate the achievements of directors and their teams.

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